What problem can open access solve?

A recent conversation on an e-mail list for theological librarians (the branch of academic librarianship in which I began my own professional career) has lead me to reflect on exactly what problem it is that open access is designed to solve.

The exchange involved a journal called “Studies in Religion,” which is subscribed to primarily by seminaries and other small religious colleges and universities.  The journal has just announced that it will move from being published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press to Sage Publications, and the cost of an institutional subscription will rise from $64 per year to $300, an increase of about 470%.  For freestanding seminaries a “price break” will keep the increase down to a mere 350%.

The humanities have been largely insulated from the journal pricing increases that are the origin of the so-called crisis in scholarly communications, but they are fast catching up, unfortunately.  In this case, the motive for moving to a new publisher is probably to have “Studies in Religion” included in a large package of online journals.  The ironic result, of course, is that many schools with no interest in this title will be forced to subscribe to it while those institutions where it is most needed will likely have to cancel.

I have frequently argued that the solution to the continuing copyright battles in higher education is for scholars to stop transferring copyright to publishers and preserve their right to make their work available in open access.  Widespread open access can indeed reduce the need for scholars to ask permission to use their own works and the risk of copyright litigation against colleges and universities.  But it will not, by itself, solve the problem of journal prices.

We need to distinguish between the problem of skyrocketing journal costs and the access problem, of which costs are only part of the cause.

There was a time when publication in a prestigious journal, or even a second tier one, brought with it an assurance that all the people to whom a scholar’s work would be important would have a chance to see it.   Times have changed dramatically, and that sense of assurance based on publication in a toll-access journal is simply no longer possible.  Cost is certainly part of the problem; an increasing number of a scholar’s colleagues will be working at institutions that have had to cancel access to the journal or database in which her work has been published.  But it is also the cases that fewer and fewer researchers begin their work by browsing journals, or even journal databases.  Internet searches are the first recourse for many seeking information about a new topic or trying to stay current on a familiar one.  Articles in toll-access journals may not be found by such searches, or when they are found, the links will not work if the toll has not been paid.  Thus new technologies, and the research strategies they generate, are as much a cause of the access problem as prices are.  And it is the greater “findability” that open access offers that make it primarily an opportunity for greater access and impact rather than a solution to the pricing crisis.

2 thoughts on “What problem can open access solve?”

  1. The question is how you get scholars to writte under open licenses.
    what are the steps that we should promote.

  2. Okay, I get the feeling there is a pressure brought by the proliferation of online resources that is bearing down on the “access” and cost issues for journal publications. Something has surely has got to give…and will.

    I know your discussion focuses on a higher-ed level, but trust me that our local eds, such as Gwinnett County private schools will benefit equally.

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